In 1936, the Nazi are little more than loud, brutish bores to fifteen-year old Stephan Neuman, the son of a wealthy and influential Jewish family and budding playwright whose playground extends from Vienna’s streets to its intricate underground tunnels. Stephan’s best friend and companion is the brilliant Žofie-Helene, a Christian girl whose mother edits a progressive, anti-Nazi newspaper. But the two adolescents’ carefree innocence is shattered when the Nazis’ take control.
There is hope in the darkness, though. Truus Wijsmuller, a member of the Dutch resistance, risks her life smuggling Jewish children out of Nazi Germany to the nations that will take them. It is a mission that becomes even more dangerous after the Anschluss—Hitler’s annexation of Austria—as, across Europe, countries close their borders to the growing number of refugees desperate to escape.
Tante Truus, as she is known, is determined to save as many children as she can. After Britain passes a measure to take in at-risk child refugees from the German Reich, she dares to approach Adolf Eichmann, the man who would later help devise the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” in a race against time to bring children like Stephan, his young brother Walter, and Žofie-Helene on a perilous journey to an uncertain future abroad.
Trigger Warnings: Miscarriage, death of a baby, murder, suicide.
It was true after all: we are never more easily deceived than when we are ourselves in the act of deception.
This book pulled me out of a month long reading slump. Historical fiction will always be a superior genre in my reading life—if it’s done correctly.
The story takes place from December 1936 to 1940 and an epilogue that just wraps up what happened to everyone beyond 1940. It’s told in third-person omniscient, which I have learned is my favorite perspective. I love seeing all the characters from a bird’s-eye point of view, but also getting to understand how they feel. First person just seems so inauthentic unless it’s a thriller.
Geertruida Wijsmuller—Tante Truus—is a motherless Dutchwoman who rescues Jewish children from Nazi Germany and takes them to a safe country—Netherlands / England. She ends up making a deal with Eichmann (who I will mention later) to manage 600 children on a train—no babies / no 18-year-olds—during Sabbath. Not one child more or less. They all have numbers they have to go by. This is how Geertruida comes into contact with Stephan, Zofie, and Walter.
The reader also meets Geertruida’s husband, Joop. He doesn’t play a huge role in the novel, but they have been dealing with some infertility issues as well as the struggle with transferring the children from country to country. He understands why she does it, but his main goal is to protect his beloved wife.
I get where Joop is coming from, but I don’t always agree with how he communicates with Truus. He wants her to believe that having her own child is more important than SAVING the ones that are in imminent danger. I wouldn’t want to bring another baby into a horrifying situation such as pre-WWII / WWII. There was a quote from Truus that made me really connect with her. There is always so much pressure to have a kid, and this quote is extremely accurate—even in today’s world.
I’m a woman who can’t bear children in a world that values nothing else from me.Geertruida Wijsmuller
Stephan Neuman starts out as a 15-year-old Jewish boy who wants to become a playwright. His idol is a well known playwright—Stefan Zweig. Stephan’s main goal is to get a typewriter for Christmas. Stephen lives in a mansion surrounded by quite a bit of family—Aunt Lisl, Uncle Michael, little brother Walter, Walter’s stuffed rabbit Peter, Papa and his ill mother.
He runs out to the barbershop to get his hair cut by Otto. Stephan doesn’t have the funds to pay for the haircut, so Otto pretends to cut it. Then Stephan meets Zofie-Helene—Otto’s granddaughter. Zofie’s mother—Kathe Perger—is the editor of Vienna Independent. Zofie’s father used to be the editor, but he was claimed to have committed suicide in a Berlin hotel in 1934. Zofie is an unfiltered math prodigy. Numbers are everything to her!
But one is always greater than zero, Grandpapa, even if zero is more interesting mathematically.Zofie-Helene
I will add that Stephan talks a lot about Zofie’s breasts. He is a 15-year-old boy, after all. I just didn’t get the reason for it other than that. It isn’t mentioned a lot, but it’s definitely there.
Adolf Eichmann works at the Jewish Department—SD II/112—and was denied a promotion. Instead, he has to show around his new Prussian boss, Obersturmfuhrer Wisliceny. They discuss what should happen to the Jews, and Eichmann suggested they send them to countries that won’t benefit from Germany’s detriment. This ends up being the man that Truus talks to about the train to England.
It’s the problems you fail to anticipate that defeat you.Geertruida Wijsmuller
The focus on family and the effect of giving up small children can have on them is incredibly well done. It also proves just how strong children are—mentally and physically—when they have to be. I loved the friendships that are formed, the love Truus has for each individual child, the risks that are taken by everyone. I loved every bit of it.
I don’t want to go into extreme detail about everything. There are a lot of plot points I left out (Stephan’s father, Stephan’s aunt and uncle, how Zofie, Walter, and Stephan all end up on the train, what happens when they all get to England, etc.) because I don’t want to ruin the enjoyment of the book. There are so many pieces of treasure you get to discover while reading this. The writing is also pretty incredible. I highly recommend this one to y’all!
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